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Biographical Details of Leadership
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BOND: Amiri Baraka, welcome to the Explorations in Black Leadership. We're very grateful that you've agreed to do this.
BARAKA: Thank you very much.
BOND: I want to begin with just a couple of questions about the Brown decision of May of 1954. You would have been 20 years old when the Supreme Court decided that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. What do you remember then about conversations, talks? What do you recall?
BARAKA: I know that I was coming out of Howard University and on my way into the Air Force. So it was a transition definitely. It was actually very symbolic, I guess, because I had just gotten cashiered out of Howard and I was going to the Air Force and I remember it struck me as something very significant that had happened and something that I thought meant that it was going to be a little less suppression of my own generation. I mean, I took it as an opening for, you know, some kind of development.
BOND: So you were -- this was optimistic?
BARAKA: Oh, yeah. I was optimistic. I mean, when I got in the Air Force I encountered the slings and fortunes of outrageous fools, but still -- I mean, I was optimistic, you know, about it.
BOND: And you said something interesting. You said, "a step forward for your own generation." Now at 20 years old you weren't about to be in high school where these students who filed suit and their parents were. What would it do for people your age? What would this do for 20-year-olds, did you think, then?
BARAKA: I thought that it would have less -- that the society itself would now be more flexible. That there were things -- because I had been in Rutgers already, but, as I remember, I was doing -- there were about two of us in Newark, Rutgers. And I had to even go through some kind of abusive language with one of the faculty -- the bandmaster -- And so there was a tension in my generation, your generation in the sense that we had -- I had a feeling that all of this stuff was going to pass, that we were going to be able to defeat this, I mean, even in the more passive way that I perceived it then, because I got more aggressive as I understood more, and got older. But even in the more or less passive way, I still had the feeling that we were going to be able to penetrate this kind of, you know, racism. 'Cause I had been told that by my parents, my grandparents all my life.
BOND: They had told you that this could be done, that progress could be made...
BARAKA: No, they told me that all this would pass --
BOND: Would pass -- that all this would pass.
BARAKA: That those people were fools and that no matter what was said, that we were beautiful, that we were intelligent and that we were going to win -- my parents always believed that.
BOND: You came out of optimism --
BARAKA: Oh, yeah.
BOND: -- and hope --
BARAKA: Oh, yeah.
BOND: -- and the certainty that things could get better?
BARAKA: Oh, absolutely.
BOND: Yeah. Now looking back at it, from almost 50 years after '54, what do you think now?
BARAKA: Well, I think what I didn't understand was what I tried to lay out last night in the speech, the whole question of Sisyphus, that, yeah, you're going to make a step forward or like Lenin said, "Two steps forward," then you're gonna take a step backward, too. So I think that's what has been made clear to me, that it is a thermidor, a process. After each advance there's a kind of retreat or a kind of push back that then for the next generation means they have to take another step and go through the same thing. I knew that we were going to -- that we were going to press forward. I mean, I never doubted that, you know.
BOND: Can you say very quickly how the Brown decision particularly has affected you particularly? Has it had an effect on you?
BARAKA: Well, it's made me know, first of all, as I said before, it's made me understand that the struggle is practical -- practicable and practical -- and that it will give, you know, results. There will be results. On the other hand, it's made me understand very clearly how there's always resistance. And that resistance is not only direct, but there are all kinds of devious ways that, you know -- I mean, I've never seen so many scams, you know, from Americans and from this state itself. But I've never seen so many scams as when they talk about democracy. The minute they talk about democracy, they're also busy with these kind of lugubrious scams that are going to come up and of all kinds of ways that they're going to try to deceive, at the same time talking, you know, mucho democracy.And that's what -- that's what happens. I mean, the present resident of the White House is -- I mean, he's another example of that. But, you know, they -- they -- I grew up seeing them all have done that. The minute they come to the question of democracy, you're going to hear double talk, you know. And I've learned that earliest with Brown v. The Board of Education. But then as it went on -- as the civil rights movement deepened and, you know, we got involved in some -- then certainly we learned all over the continent the duplicity and deviousness of folk -- even the folks who were talking who supposedly were on our side.You know, that there was always so much scam in it. You know, you always had to sort it out. Some of which had been socialized in them, you know, from years of being socialized by the essentially racist society.
BOND: Well, when you first become aware that these scams are going to be run, what -- how do you feel? As you describe it, the Brown decision comes down, you're optimistic change can be made, and then these scams occur. What does that say to you?
BARAKA: Well, it says to me that you have to be, you know, as analytical. You know what I mean. In other words, you have to be slick as the slick. You have to see what is actually going on, you know what I mean.
BOND: Do you feel as if you've been taken for granted or taken in some way you've been tricked?
BARAKA: Not tricked. I think -- I thought that I had been -- that they assumed that I could be tricked. See? That's what I always thought.
BARAKA: It's like my Mama always said, "You know, they assume that you're slower than you are." You understand? So the question is, wait a minute, you say, "Oh, yeah. I can see that. I see what's happening." You know what I mean. And it just taught me that one must always be very precise in evaluating what is going on -- no matter what is being said, you know. But I maintain that optimism even today. But it's just that I realize that there are -- not only deviousness, but actual danger, and power, that seeks to prevent any real kind of change.
BOND: Let me take you back to your very, very early years. Who are the people, I guess mother, father -- but -- mother, father and others -- Who are the people who developed, nurtured, trained, pushed, slapped, whatever -- ?
BOND: -- pulled you along -- who are these early influences as a child?
BARAKA: Well, my family obviously.
BARAKA: I mean, obviously. My mother and, I guess, grandfather stand out mostly. My mother made me do [inaudible] -- She sent me and my sister all kinds of lessons. I've had every kind of lesson that you can imagine. I mean, from piano, you know, drum and art, drawing, all those kind of things, which is very interesting because it meant what? It meant that somebody was determined that you were going to know something. You know, the whole recitation of the Gettysburg Address and all that, the singing of "Ave Maria." It meant that you were gonna know something, that "You were not going to get away from me, darling, without knowing something."
And my sister, [was] like that too. My sister took ballet lessons, tap dance lessons. My sister was the only black girl in Newark at the time you'd see ice skating. Nobody else could ice skate. She would be down in the middle of the town ice skating. My mother and I'd be standing there watching her. But -- and my sister ended up as a dancer on Broadway. You know, you can see her in Cleopatra: Elizabeth Taylor's in the foreground, my sister's in the back playing, you know, one of the African girls. But that is the result of my mother in the main insisting -- you know, insisting on that. And what's amazing to me is the question about the arts, that she was emphasizing the arts for us. You know, we were going to be artists one way or another. You know. And, of course, when you finally pulled the gun out of the holster, as you say, when you finally do realize, "Yes, that's right. I've been trained in this" -- I mean, this is not just a casual idea of mine.
BOND: But it also means that the Newark community had people who could teach you -- your sister how to tap dance, you how to play the trumpet, you how to play the drum?
BARAKA: Well, they were in a circle. My parents were in a circle of young people essentially, young, black folks who were socially, you know, focused. You know, they loved to party, they loved to have -- I remember -- I think that's how I learned to drink beer so much. After their parties, I would sneak out and drain the glasses. But they loved to have these parties, but they were invariably parties that were either benefits for one cause -- black scholarships, you know -- they belonged to that little group, the National Association -- well, of course, the NAACP, but the National Association of Postal Employees. For instance, my father was deep in that. They knew people like Effa Manley, the woman that owned the Newark Eagles, our baseball team, you know. They were -- then their friends -- like my sister's ballet teacher was my mother's friend. She taught her ballet and tap. The piano [teacher's] were my mother and father's friends. Although, I had to go out for drum, I had to go out for the art school. But still, they had a circle of friends that were educated and had the same kind of, I guess you'd say kind of optimistic view of what was possible in the future.
BOND: So, in a way, without intending to do so, aren't they also preparing you for a public life, to make you self-assured in the public?
BOND: Those recitations and other things?
BARAKA: Well, she -- that's because she had a public life, more than -- My mother was, you know, one of these young, black women who had been, of course, to college -- had not graduated, but went back to graduate after her family, but who herself was used to, you know, the Junior Leaguers, the -- you know, the various kinds of organizations that you -- she was used to speaking or making public appearances, of being in charge of organizations. My father was much less out front, but even he was, you know, a member of certain of these organizations, including a bowling organization, of which he was the president, called The Nemderolocs. And The Nemderoloc of course is colored men spelled backwards. So, I mean, they all had a -- they had a public, you know, persona. My grandfather was the -- you know, the founder of one of the largest churches in Newark. So that was -- I was used to seeing my own people, you know, in public kinds of situations. So I thought it was normal.
BARAKA: When I was in elementary school there was the principal who, for some reason, thought that I was a either an informer or somebody that he needed to talk to because he would always say, "And, Everett" – you know, my first name Everett – "And, Everett, what do Negroes think about this?" I'm ten. What do I know what Negroes think about anything? But my parents had taken us to Fisk and the Tuskegee we had visited, you see. And apparently that was known that we had gone and our mother was -- you know? Because she, by that time, was just -- oh, because, you know, even though she had come out of college, she had to get a job doing piecework in those factories. My father had, by that time, become a postman, which, I guess, was the best job for black folks --
BOND: It's a wonderful, a wonderful job…
BARAKA: Yeah. I mean, so he was in the post office and she's -- when the war started, she got upgraded. You know how everybody had a little upgrade? Well, so she then got a job as an office worker for the ODB, the Office of Dependency Benefits, sending out those checks. So even though she had been a college person, she had to do work in the sort of, those dress factories prior to the second World War. That's very interesting. So the second World War. Then they moved her up to this office worker and she kept going to school and stuff. And she began to social work. And she was a well-known, well-loved social worker in the various projects, you know, the black projects. She got to be known as a social worker who visited people about their, you know, about their family problems and stuff like that. So I guess that's where I got some of that combination of always being in the crowd, and at the same time some kind of the public aspect of it.
BOND: And some kind of caring about others had to come from your mother, because your mother's caring about others.
BOND: Not just her own family, not just the immediate, but others.
BOND: Now what about your great-grandmother? She's a great storyteller. How does that come to you? I mean, I'm sure she told you stories.
BARAKA: We used to sit out in the -- in Hartsville, South Carolina, population of about three – and it would be getting late. The sun would be going down, and it'd be my sister, myself and then my two first cousins. One of my cousins is the chairman of the -- the head of the Charleston, South Carolina, Housing Authority.The other one, Loretta, you know, Tommy's other one, Loretta, was the first black woman to have a column in California, you know, in a major newspaper, The Palo Alto Times. But we would sit out on the porch, all four of us, and our great-grandmother -- who died, by the way, at 112 or something. She died in a fire. She didn't die of natural causes, you know, she was cooking pies and something happened; she couldn't get out of there. But she'd be telling us all kinds of stories usually from the Arabian Nights. She loved the Arabian Nights. I don't know why she loved the Arabian Nights, although I thought that it was not "Open Sesame!" but she would say, "Open See-Sam!" So, for many years, I would say, "Open See-Sam!" But she would tell these stories and, man, they were fascinating. But what was really fascinating was that she could tell them like that. You know? And I'm sure some of those stories there were variations on what might have been variations.
BOND: Yes, I was going to ask. Did she put a twist on them?
BARAKA: I think so. I think so. I don't know. Like, you know, where the mountain would open up and the people was in their jugs, you know, and they were all robbers -- you know, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Now I know that they were talking about the Church of Rome now -- because that's what Ali Baba means, you know, Friend of the Father.You know, like Papa -- but it was interesting that she would be focused on the Arabian Nights rather than what you would say the old black tales that you might hear, you know. That's what was so interesting. My other grandmother -- my grandmother in Newark, she would tell you the tales coming out of the South, while the one in the South was telling me stories about, you know, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and, you know, the genie coming out of the lamp and stuff like that. I was -- I think I've always loved stuff like that, you know, slightly science fiction.
BOND: Yeah. When did you start writing? I'm sure in school you had to write things, but when did you start writing for yourself?
BARAKA: Geez, about the seventh grade -- sixth or seventh grade. I had a newspaper when I was in sixth or seventh grade.
BOND: What was it called?
BARAKA: I don't even know what it was called. It was called -- geez, that's a good question. I had a newspaper. I only had ten copies of it because I'd write each one out myself. You know, it was like four pages. You know, you'd fold the sheet in half and you'd have to write everything, you'd have to copy everything.
BOND: Uh, huh.
BARAKA: And I would pass it out to members of the Secret Seven. We had an organization called the Secret Seven that used to meet up under our house. You know, under the crawl space under the porch. What were we doing there? We'd would eat Kits and -- you know, candy -- and, you know, drink Kool-Aid.That was our secret purpose, to drink Kool-Aid. I guess because your parents didn't want you to eat all that stuff -- eat all that candy and stuff. So that was the real mission of the Secret Seven. So when I got to about the sixth grade and started this newspaper -- so, then in school, I think I put out two issues of a newspaper, in elementary school. But mostly this newspaper consisted of cartoons that I drew with strange commentary. I remember one of them, every time -- wherever someone was, there would be a hand poking out and saying "Your money!" I don't know what that means. It was like -- oh, it was called "The Crime Wave." I don't know what that was. But people would be jumping off a diving board going into the pool and there'd be a hand coming out of there and say, "Your money!" or they would open the door, there'd be a hand coming out saying, "Money!" And I'd try and figure out what was that about. Why were you so concerned about robbery? I also sent President Roosevelt a letter then telling him how he could win the war quicker, you know. It was a house with guns coming out of it on wheels, which I guess is a tank. But this house -- the only problem with that letter is I stuffed into the radio because that's where I would hear --
BOND: That's where he came from.
BARAKA: Yeah, that's where he came from. So I figured he must be in that radio. So, I would put those letters in there. And what was interesting is that I don't think -- I was wondering why my parents didn't tell me that you can't get to President Roosevelt in that radio. You gotta mail it. But --
BOND: Especially your Dad --
BARAKA: Yeah, World War -- yeah. But that writing thing, I don't know. I was a great storyteller. You know, my mother said I was the biggest liar in the world, because I would make up stuff. Why I would make it up? 'Cause I could make it up. I mean, one time a woman came, the teacher, came to my house and asked my mother, and said, "Why do you keep snakes in your basement?" "Snakes?" Said seems that her son being late for school one day --
BOND: Had to tend the snakes?
BARAKA: Right. Said I had to go downstairs in the basement and feed the snakes. So this woman actually believed this fantastic story, you know: He had to go feed the snakes. So she was coming, you know, to find out about this health hazard. But it was that, always having to conjure up an extra aspect of reality, you know what I mean? Of trying to create some kind of magical quality to reality, to foist some magical quality on it that I thought it lacked, you know. And so then later in elementary school is when I started to write.
BOND: I can't remember where I read this about you. I think it was during some ceremony at the Schomburg for Langston Hughes and some libation spilled and you danced. And -- or maybe it was at a church?
BARAKA: No, it was at the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture] --
BOND: No, I'm thinking about something else. And this was at a church and it was an occasion, a memorial for some prominent person, and you said, "If there is a God" and I was struck by that, that you would say that in the church.
BARAKA: Oh, yeah. No, I said that.
BOND: Not that you believe, or don't believe, but I was just struck by that --
BARAKA: Oh, yeah. No, I said that, you know, to them, because that town is so small, everybody in there knows my beliefs about everything. You know. But they also know that I was raised in that church and, you know, there are no ministers walking around in that town that have been in that church longer than I have.
BOND: When you were speaking last night and reciting your poetry, in some ways I was reminded of sermonizing. And I wondered if you took from early experiences in church this call-and-response pattern, this rhythmic back and forth, or --
BARAKA: That's the -- that's the paradigm. I mean, that would be my first and strongest paradigm. You know, not only did we have to go to church every Sunday, as well you did too, I'm sure --
BARAKA: But we also went to some other services, God knows. Sunday school --
BARAKA: -- BYPU -- Baptist Young People['s Union], all kind of wild stuff. Some weekends we even went to -- some weekdays we even went to prayer meetings. I guess that's where my mother and father were going somewhere and left me in my grandmother's charge. So me and my sister, we had to end up in prayer meetings,too. So that was my reference. That was my reference. And you can tell today, probably more clearly than then, what children go to church, what children -- however they get there. But you can tell the difference it seems to me, you know. Although my adventures in church were kind of mixed, you know.
BARAKA: But I think when I was twelve was when I got baptized. And, you know, when they dunk you in that water, man --
BOND: Total immersion --
BARAKA: Right. Total immersion. And then when I came out from that water, I said, "Wait a minute. Everything is the same." I thought that once I got dumped in the water, I would come out, you know -- maybe I would know Christ or something like that or I would see something. But that was, I guess, part of my own, kind of, cynicism in a way, you know. And then you see things happening --
BOND: But where does that come from if you have this strongly believing great-grandmother, and she's the religious person and a big influence, obviously? Where does that cynicism -- why are you a doubter?
BARAKA: Well, I don't know, I don't know. My grandmother -- no, my great-grandmother was the storyteller. She was in South Carolina. My grandmother lived with us.
BOND: Your grandmother was the believer.
BARAKA: Was the -- yeah, the super-believer. Who was also a head of the Ladies Aid. You know, they had a class struggle in the church between the Ladies Aid and the Flower Committee. There were two groups trying to contend with each other, you know. I don't know, except my father was always -- his behavior puzzled me because he never went to church. See? So I would figure, "Well, wait a minute. He ain't going to church. So what does God give him? Some kind of special pass to get in?" Because he'd be there at home reading detective books -- detective stories, reading the newspaper. But his claim was that he was a Methodist. That's why he didn't go to the Baptist church.
BOND: Why didn't he go to the Methodist church?
BARAKA: Well, that's what I wanted to know. See? But then, you know, it all -- but this is the interesting thing. Once my mother died, he joined the church -- the Baptist church and became an ardent Baptist, or ardent church-goer anyway, and became a deacon and all that. You know, there was a Deacon Jones actually. And it was my father. But until he died -- he just died in April -- he, I mean, he went to church from the time my mother died until he got out. But I guess that was because, maybe, he then began to, like Bill Cosby said, "This is an old man trying to get into Heaven," so he's trying to, you know, work --
But that always puzzled me. Not puzzled me, but it always left a kind of, serious kind of concern. Suppose there is no God and there is no Heaven? And, you know, here my people spend all this time worshipping. As a matter of fact, I even have a play called The Election Machine Warehouse cause my grandfather, that was his job. He was a Republican -- he was a big-time Republican, and that's the job they gave him, night watchman in the election machine factory. And my sister and I used to jump on top of those machines and run up and down. It was a whole block long, all the election machines in the county were in there. We would run up and down on the top of those machines. And I would wonder -- you know, I wrote this play where the radio was -- you know, the radio was what was happening -- they used to really -- when radio starts talking to them -- you know. And I remember this guy who used to come on, "Good evening, my good colored friends. I'm from Heavenly Rest and -- " You know, he'd be selling coffins.
BOND: Uh huh, uh huh.
BARAKA: Right? Not coffins. Whatever you call -- ? The plots.
BARAKA: So I had this guy -- this same guy on the radio saying, "Good evening, my good colored friends. We're going to sell you these coffins because, you know, there is no God for the colored. And no matter how much you worship God, you're not going to see God. But we have a coffin that the devil cannot get in -- "
BOND: Uh, huh...
BARAKA: " -- so that you would lay in this coffin for thousands of years and the devil will not be able to get you." And my grandmother's sitting there listening to that, or at least that's what I have in the play, that it's, you know, my grandmother's sitting there listening to this, and she runs out the where the election machine is: "Everett, Everett -- !" -- talking to my grandfather: "The radio is talking to me. The radio -- the radio is saying we can't get into Heaven."
But that's the kind of stuff I would make up in my mind, sitting there listening to the radio and listening to this -- watching my grandmother and grandfather in that context, you know. Very, very funny, very special kind of context.
BOND: When you started going there, I thought you were going to talk about a poem, "When We'll Worship Jesus" --
BARAKA: Oh, yeah --
BOND: In which you question Christianity, the efficacy of Christianity to lead black people toward salvation, freedom, what have you --
BARAKA: I figured if we believed -- like I was saying last night about, you know, and -- Jimmy Bowen's and Du Bois' thing about, you know, this so-called primitive Christianity: " If we believe so strong, how come we got to be the slaves?" You know. That was my -- even as a little boy. Said, "Wait a minute -- if we that close to God and we that good" -- because I see these other people ain't that good. I see stuff going on in newspapers -- then how come we got to be the slaves? You know. And that is what that poem is asking.
So, I said, "You know, I'll worship Jesus when Jesus do something." I mean, at least box with black people's enemies. It's always been that [way]. But then I saw that Dr. King, on the other hand, could turn that black Christian mythology or, if you will, or that belief system, and utilize that as the kind of energizing force for a whole movement. Because obviously that's what that was. I mean, he used, you know, Christianity in that way. But then black leaders have mostly, throughout the years, have been ministers. I mean, even Malcolm X is a minister. But I think that is because we were never allowed to develop any kind of institutional advance secularly. You know what I mean.
BOND: Yeah. So you had to find your -- if you had leadership impulses -- ?
BOND: -- they had to come out over there.
BARAKA: Yeah, they had to come out of the church.
BOND: Let me take you back a little bit to -- you mentioned what you'd read about in newspapers. What newspapers did you read then, high school and --
BARAKA: When I was a kid?
BOND: When you were a kid. In addition to the ones you produced --
BARAKA: The Daily News and the Star Ledger.
BOND: The Star Ledger?
BARAKA: No, and the Newark Evening News. It was the Newark -- my father would bring home the Newark Evening News, you know, because he was a postman. And he would come in and he'd have the paper under his arm. And I would up -- and get the paper. My son does the same thing to me. My oldest son did the same thing to me. I'd have the newspaper when I'd come in, he'll come up and get it and read it, you know. I just think they all did that to me. But the Daily News you read in the morning, and the Ledger, one or the other. And, you know, the Evening News. But never the New York Times and New York -- the Daily News was the paper, and the Ledger and the --
BOND: What about black papers? The Courier --
BARAKA: They read -- yes. They read, of course --
BOND: The Afro?
BARAKA: They read the Afro American, they read the Pittsburgh Courier, they read the -- there was another black newspaper in town. Then there were some weird black newspapers. You know, like there was one black newspaper that just told gossip, you know, and they would tell you: "The shadow has been watching H.J. and D.S. in Jersey City and they better stop that." You know, I loved that, you know, because it was pure gossip.
But I guess the best one of those newspapers was the Newark Evening News that my father brought home. It was like a paper that styled itself more like the New York Times, but it came out in the afternoon. The Daily News was the morning newspaper, which as it turned out, had the most influence. I always taught the Daily News in school because I taught their style. You know, I mean, 'cause they had very backward content. But both of those tabloids -- the Daily News and the Post -- were opposite ideologically. But I used to teach that when I was teaching writing courses. That this is what you call "sensationalism." What do you mean about sensationalism? You mean a style of journalism that depends on your sensations, you know, that goes to quick, emotional kind of raise. You know? And sometimes you wished the papers that were a little more thoughtful, had a little more of that kind of sensationalism about the truth. You know what I mean. I mean, the New York Post and the Daily News had the sensationalism, which was absolutely full of lies. You know, absolutely sham. You know.
BOND: Well, you get out of high school, you got to Rutgers, Newark, and who there pushes or pulls you some way?
BARAKA: I had a little professor, he was about four-foot tall. I had a little professor named Marx. He was about five foot. He was little, but he -- the literature thing was what was important. By that time I had started reading -- people like e.e. cummings and Ezra Pound in that little town.
BOND: Well, how did you find these? How do you come to e.e. cummings?
BARAKA: Well, I'm in school. And at a school -- I mean, from Rutgers -- I was going to Rutgers then. And I got home -- and also my mother, again, belonged to the Book of the Month Club. And I had read Frank Yerby when I was in high school.
BOND: Oh, I love Frank Yerby…
BARAKA: Right. Especially, the dirty parts.
BOND: I have all those books. I have all those books.
BARAKA: Yeah, I love it when --
BOND: -- bought all those books. You know, they were Book of the Month Clubs and you could buy them at antique shows. And they have those lurid covers, you know --
BARAKA: That's right. That's right.
BOND: Oh, man! Anyway, go on. I'm sorry.
BARAKA: Foxes of Harrow and all that...
BOND: Yes. I remember Langston Hughes character "Simple" talked about it. He said it was The Foxes of Harry.
BARAKA: But, you know, I -- that was -- and she had those Book of the Month and I would read 'em, you see. And I read not only Yerby, but Richard Wright. I read Black Boy when I was in high school, you know. And I never liked Native Son. But the point is I was reading those things then. I -- we had books -- I read the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. But then my grandmother used to come back -- 'cause she used to do white people's hair. She'd go up in the rich neighborhood, and she would bring back these books and clothes she said the people gave her. I have to believe my grandmother. She was such a sweet lady. She had these clothes. I would have on kind of an expensive clothes that had come out of these white folk's house, and she brought back a complete set of Charles Dickens, a complete set of H. Rider Haggard. What's the other guy? Kipling. She had a complete set of Rudyard Kipling.
BARAKA: And so I would be reading these books. You know, I read She and all those kind of things, and David Copperfield. I was still a little boy reading that stuff. And so they had some kind of appreciation for, you know, that kind of mind development. Course, if I could find my old copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, you know, where I had marked it up when I was a little kid because I was reading when I was a little boy, you know.
BOND: And you were notating, making notes?
BARAKA: Yeah, I was making notes. I was actually -- the stuff that I liked I would make lines, you know. And I thought that -- because I thought that was wonderful. I thought Rubaiyat was wonderful because it was like mystical. It would say things that you didn't understand. And I would be trying to figure out, "What does that mean now?" You know, "What does that mean?" I knew it meant something, you know. What does it mean? So, that was the kind of reading that I was doing before I got to college, you see. And then I -- Langston and people like that you knew -- I took Langston Hughes for granted because he was in the black newspapers. And he was the only person I knew that was talking about colored people, you know. And so I liked that because he was. And I took that, I just took that for granted.
BARAKA: But then my grandfather was a race man, see. Back in the day he was, you know, a black Republican and, you know, was always-- you know, helped build that huge church… was always supposedly setting the pace for black people. So I never, never thought any other way. You know what I mean? My father used to take me to see the Newark Eagles baseball games every time they were downtown. And then we'd go over to the Grand Hotel, which is -- they called it the Grand Hotel -- it was a black hotel, but that's where the baseball players would hang out afterwards, you know. And so I met people like Monte Irvin and Larry Doby when I was a little boy. And also -- So I had a sense of the possibility, you know. That my parents were smart. I figured they were smart.
You know, my father could fix anything so I'd think he was real smart. And I knew my mother was real smart cause people talked to her like she was smart, you know. Plus, she was the most beautiful woman in the world, I thought, you know. So it was a question of I knew that I had some smart parents, you know what I mean, and that anything was possible. And also, I used to see my mother go up against these racists all the time, you know. That was another thing. I mean, I knew that you could do that. You know, I remember one time we were in this store, my mother asking for -- said, "Give me a pound of those nuts." And the woman said, "You mean the Nigger Toes?"
And my mother said, "Those are Brazil nuts, lady" and threw the nuts down on the thing and grabbed my hand and walked out. So I could hear that and I saw -- that's the way you're supposed to act toward that. You know, you're supposed to treat them with contempt and defiance, you know. Several times I saw her dealing with people like that around a racial thing. So I figured from early -- that that's the way you deal with that. You know, you don't let them get away with anything, you know, whatever the consequences. You know, you take it up. Oh, she took those nuts and threw em down at -- rolling all over the counter. So I said, "Well, that's the way you're supposed to handle that."
BOND: So, you knew if the chance came, you could do the same thing?
BARAKA: That's right.
BOND: Yeah. It was okay?
BARAKA: That's right. Because one time my mother and I had a funny conversation. She said to me...this is much later. She said, "I don't know why you want to do these dangerous things," -- with something we were doing -- some demonstration, and I said, "What are you talking about? You put me up to it!" And I meant that. You know, "Don't tell me about doing these dangerous things that you're doing." And I really felt that. You know, "You put me up to it. You -- all my life -- showed me that not only wouldn't you go for that, but that you didn't have to go for it."
BOND: Yeah. She set a standard for you?
BARAKA: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
BOND: Okay, so then you go to Rutgers, and what are you reading then?
BARAKA: Yeah. I started reading Ezra Pound, and e.e. cummings, these white writers that I had never heard of before.
BOND: Yes, and they had to be -- well -- I remember when I first read them, I'm saying, "Wow! I've never seen anybody do this before!"
BOND: " -- write this way before!" What did -- ?
BARAKA: Well, that's what -- I mean, cummings first -- I had never seen that. Pound, that whole other, allusions to, you know, the odes and the, you know, the use of the whole -- you know, the influence of the Confucian empire... I was influenced by that. You know, I began then to read T.S. Eliot. And I was a little boy. I mean, I was then a freshman in college. But then I couldn't stand Rutgers.
When I was in high school, I went to a high school that was predominantly Italian. I had to come all the way across town to go to high school. I started taking writing classes. I took two writing classes in high school. I became the sports editor of the high school newspaper for the last week of school. I mean, why they did that became obvious to me, because we were going through these transitions on the racial scene. So even though I hadn't done that for all those years, my last year --
BOND: For one week --
BARAKA: For one week, I became the sports editor. Can you believe that? That they would actually do that to a kid. Because I didn't know what was going on, you know. Then -- and I read science fiction. That's what I did. My reading at home was much deeper than it was in high school really. I mean, the books that they gave me in high school I didn't really like. The Yearling, The Scarlet Letter. I thought they were corny books, you know. But the books I used to read at home -- you know, H. Rider Haggard did those adventure tales, and Kipling -- you know what I mean. And Yerby. I thought that was some exciting stuff. But this stuff in high school was corny. But I started to write. I kept writing in high school or at least in these writing classes. As a matter of fact, they just published the first story I ever had published, and they even have an actor reading it, on -- you know, on --
BOND: On a CD?
BARAKA: Yeah, on a CD. They call -- it's called "First" something -- "First Voice" or something like that. All these writers, their first published stories. This is published in a high school magazine. And so when I got into college, I then -- you know, what that did is opened me up. For the first time I read, for instance, James Joyce. Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, which I loved that book. You know, that was -- I don't know what that was. It gave me a sense of another life. And a lot of the things that I learned in that, I didn't even understand until later. I didn't understand that Joyce was a nationalist, you know. I didn't understand certain things in the book.
BOND: Now when you say "another life," what do you mean another life, because surely even Haggard has given you a look at another life. Yerby has given you a look at another life -- ?
BARAKA: But that was in my -- that was in my house, see.
BARAKA: You see? That was in my house. When I was a little boy, I could sit up in my house and read. You know, I could go in my room. I'd stretch out on the bed and read stuff. So even though that was about weird stuff, which I liked, cause I didn't in high school -- I would read -- I love science fiction, you know. But the Pound/Eliot stuff in college was context by being among mostly white students. But I had been in that before. Why? I don't know. Now I was in college now in Newark -- in Newark, Rutgers -- and the things that Pound and Eliot and e.e. cummings talk about were different, seemed different somehow. They seemed...
BOND: And then Joyce?
BARAKA: And Joyce. It seemed like it was different. Of course it was -- those were a little more complicated, remember. It was not just the easy -- well, you know, not easy ever, but the easier reading of, say, Charles Dickens.
BARAKA: You know. Or Yerby, you know. The Pound and cummings/Eliots had a complexity to it -- some of it useful, some of it not useful -- that could certainly later on mean -- I liked Ulysses of James Joyce. When it came to Finnegan's Wake, I thought that was like nuts. I thought it was just garbage, you know.
BOND: Now are you consciously or can you recall consciously saying, "Gee, I see what he's doing here. I like that and I can use that, take it to another dimension or twist it in a certain" -- are you consciously absorbing these things or you think unconsciously absorbing these things?
BOND: Not that there are influences in this way, but are they shaping you?
BARAKA: Oh, sure. Absolutely. I mean, I mean, those people I just named -- cummings and Eliot and James Joyce -- they were definitely... I mean, to whatever extent you could say is influence…
BARAKA: But they had they... it's like you suddenly see that people are doing something quite different, that there is an element of experimentation that you hadn't understood before. I mean, certainly the cummings thing with the letters all over the page and all --
BARAKA: That was peculiar. And for me, it was very interesting.
BOND: Did it give you permission to do that?
BARAKA: Yes. Absolutely.
BOND: Yeah. But you hadn't thought you could do it before.
BARAKA: I didn't know that people did that.
BOND: Okay. And then from Rutgers to Howard. And how was that?
BARAKA: Well, you know, there's one other book. There was a book called One Hundred Modern Poems by Selden Rodman. Did Rodman die? I don't know. But anyway, as that transitioned in Rutgers, I read this book One Hundred Modern Poems, and then I got the whole story, I mean -- or the beginning of the whole story. I read people are like [Guillaume] Apollinaire and [Charles] Baudelaire and, you know, [Rainer Maria] Rilke, the people who were like, you know, really out there. You know what I mean? And they couldn't be no further out than the others. But then I could read in this anthology One Hundred Modern Poems. They were, you know, Bertolt Brecht. I began to see, "Man, there is a wild world out here. People are doing all kinds of wild stuff, saying all kind of wild stuff, and thinking all kind of wild stuff." And then I always loved the idea of these people who were being -- who were experimenting, but saying something that I could agree with. You know what I mean? That always -- I loved that. When they were saying, you know, when they were really doing something weird, but I'd say, "Geez, I could agree with that."
BARAKA: So Howard University -- I got sick of Rutgers because -- I had gone to Barringer, which is all Italian school, you know, and fought that battle for three, four -- for three years 'cause I went -- but I went to an Italian junior high school. I mean, I was -- I had got sick of that, you know, of being in a minority --
BARAKA: You know, I got to -- Rutgers, you know -- as a matter of fact, one time we had an intramural track meet and I won about four events. And I said, "Well, this is not even real." I mean, I'm moderately fast up on the hill where I live, but -- I can't come down here and just sweep everything, the 100-yard dash, the 220-yard dash, the 440-yard dash, and the 880-dash. I just ran away with it. I said, "This can't be real. This is not real. This is some kind of aberration. I gotta get out of here." And that's when I went to Howard, you know, to try to get away from what I thought of the lack of reality, and not wanting to be marginalized, not wanting to be the minority student. I began to feel that everything in these schools was for "them."
BOND: And not for you?
BARAKA: Not for me. You know what I mean. I was on the margin looking in. I didn't really like that so -- and my mother who claimed, and she obviously did, influenced me to go to a black school. And so I got out of there and went to Howard.
BOND: You get to Howard and obviously the big change racially from Rutgers to Howard -- how's it different in other ways?
BARAKA: Well, the most important thing is that I felt, now, at ease. You know, I mean, because when you're in school in that minority position and always going to -- I'm not talking about the -- you know, every once in a while you'd have to get into some kind of overt racial confrontation with some jerk, some nut, you know -- 'cause actually I was always ready to deal with that. But it was that you didn't have to think of yourself as being marginalized, being left out of everything.
And so -- immediately I met some people, you know, who were friends of mine, who are friends of mine today. I don't think I know anybody who I went to Rutgers with. You know what I'm saying? You show your -- but the people at -- from that first day, the first day at Howard I met my dentist. I mean, you know, Jimmy Lassiter who's head of the, you know, the Black Dental Association. I met him the first day I got to school. We were playing basketball, you know, waiting to register. And the other people that I got to know -- there was a big change socially. It was a big change psychologically. I could relax, first of all, you know, and not think about things that were really extraneous to me at that time. You know, not extraneous in the way that they would never occur, because we were always certainly aware of the kind of, you know, racial kind of oppression, so to speak…
BOND: Yeah, I'm going to focus on Howard and teachers in a minute, but what about the difference between Washington and Newark, the cities surrounding Rutgers and Howard, what -- ?
BARAKA: Well, it was funny because for we Northern students, it was funny, you know. And we -- and some of the Southern students, we would defy it all the time. We'd make fun. We'd go to the People's Drug Store, like I said, and order all this stuff. You know, they wouldn't let black people eat in there, you know. So, we'd go in there and say, "Give me five hamburgers, and six sodas and some french fries, and this and this and this," and they'd bring it in the bag, and we'd say, "I don't want to -- I want to eat it here." "You know you can't eat here." Well, I said, "Well, I don't want it."You'd go away and you'd leave it there, you know. That was the kind of thing we loved to do.
Then there was the thing where you couldn't even go to the movies downtown, you know, unless you were a British subject or a French subject, you know. In other words, if you were an African and can show that you were, you know, a British subject, you could get in the movie. But if you're just plain old black American, they wouldn't let you in. So we began to do all kinds of wild things -- put turbans on our head, go down there and speak weird things. And, like as not you wouldn't get in anyway, because they'd say -- they want to see, you know, your passport, you know. But it was funny. And for us it was always a question of defying it. I mean, we were not fixed on defying it, in that sense, but whenever it came up, that was our line. It needed to be defied. It was stupid. Who were these people? They dumb anyway. You know. And then occasionally we'd have to actually... You know, I mean, we got into a fight with some marine, some white marines one time as students. And that was funny to us because there wasn't enough of them to be, you know, I mean, threatening. You know what I mean? But, I mean, they seemed to think that they wanted to box with us. I mean, that kind of stuff. So it was always between some kind of low comedy.
BOND: Now you're at Howard, you're surrounded by compatible people, you're making friends --
BOND: What about teachers?
BARAKA: Oh, I had great teachers.
BOND: Sterling Brown?
BARAKA: Sterling Brown. That -- see, that was the thing then at Howard that I hadn't realized 'cause I was trying to get out of the mostly white context because it was -- it was on my -- you know, it was -- it was working on my mind, you know, that being the minority. But then I'd walk into classes, man, and there was, you know, Sterling Brown. I didn't know Sterling Brown. But then later I would find out this great, black poet was my English teacher. Can you imagine that?
BARAKA: And I would be sitting up there, and then he would be talking -- it's very interesting. I went there, Toni Morrison went there. All of the black students there who sat up under Brown who actually were telling you some things that you even learn today. I mean, the whole thing about black music being, you know, the foundation of your history in America and any kind of continuous example of black history. That where the music goes, that's where the people go. You know? And the music reflects the people. When he first sat A. B. Spellman and myself down in his house and invited us to his house, he said, "That's your history, boys." You know, that was like a -- like a wave of something. I mean, that was a shock because it didn't mean what it came to mean. Somebody shows you these records they got, you know, they got Bessie Smith and they got Duke Ellington and they got Fletcher Henderson and they got Ethel Waters and they got Billie Holliday and they say, "That's your history there." And you say, "Well, that's the kind of remark that a professor would make," you see.
BOND: So you didn't say, "Okay, yes, you're right"?
BARAKA: No, no, no. But then he would teach us about the music. See, Sterling then sat us down in the dormitory because what he could dig is that we wanted to know about the music, because remember at that time jazz was banned at Howard University's campus. I mean, that's how sick these Negroes were. That they had actually become so alienated from themselves in this quest for the great American dream -- in which they would be ghosts -- that the music was banned. Like A. B. Spellman. He was one of my best friends in college, without a doubt. He would come to the door of the room -- my room was like -- we had a sign on it, 13 Rue Madeleine, that was the Gestapo headquarters -- so he comes in the door and he would go, [knock, knock -- deep voices]. He'd start singing. No, he started singing like either "Ode to Joy," you know, Beethoven's Ninth. All right. You know, he was in the opera, The Howard Singers sang European concert music. You understand what I mean?
BARAKA: Yeah. So when Sterling then -- apparently how he perceived that we didn't think that was cool, you understand, he'd say, "You all think you know something about music," you know. "Yeah, we know Charlie Parker -- " he said, "You come to my house." And then he started classes in the dormitory, and we would sit in the dormitory, at the brand new Clark Hall. And he would talk about the music. See? That was completely out. Of course, that wasn't sanctioned by the university. Quite the contrary.
BOND: But at the same time, the music he's talking about I can remember being distant from, that is, I embraced Charlie Parker, but Louis Armstrong, it took me a while to --
BARAKA: To understand that.
BOND: -- embrace Louis Armstrong --
BARAKA: I understand that.
BOND: -- and Bessie Smith. My parents had Bessie Smith records. And they didn't appeal to me initially.
BARAKA: Yeah. Right.
BOND: Now what was your reaction?
BARAKA: Because what Sterling was saying was deeper than that. He was telling us about the blues, he was telling us about Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, you know. But what Sterling was trying to make us understand is the historical continuum that that provided, you understand? And to say that "What you don't know is where this came from." See? "You like Byrd and them." But it took me a while to know who Duke Ellington was, and to really know who Louis Armstrong was, you know. I mean, I was an adult before I could dig Louis, you know. And before I really, before I really manifested who that was -- the greatest trumpet player, ever, anywhere, you know -- I was like in my forties or something like that. You know.
BOND: Yes. I was turned off by what I took to be the clownish --
BARAKA: Yeah, the clownish --
BOND: -- aspects of his --
BOND: -- persona.
BARAKA: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
BOND: And I couldn't. I couldn't do it.
BARAKA: Of course. No, because you would -- all of that, all of those teeth and what not, you see. But then later on, it -- and then remember when Louis came out with the thing during the Arkansas --
BOND: Little Rock crisis. Yeah.
BARAKA: Yeah, the Little Rock crisis, you see. And that -- and I tell you, I saw -- I'll tell you what really blew my mind about Louis Armstrong. He was on -- this was much later -- he was on a television interview with his manager, Joe Glaser. And so the commentator asked him, "Well, Mr. Armstrong, can you tell us in your sixty years of being in the music business what have you learned? How do you -- you know, what would you tell young people." He said, "Well, I'll tell ya' one thing I learned is if you're black and you're in the music business, you gotta find yourself some white man and make yourself that white man's nigger. Ain't that right, Joe?"
BOND: Really? Oh, my Lord. What a remarkable thing.
BARAKA: No, I saw that actually. It made you want to look away from the television.
BOND: Yes. Yes.
BARAKA: I said because he's obviously been waiting fifty years --
BOND: To say to them -- what did Glaser say?
BARAKA: Joe Glaser didn't say nothing. He was -- he looked like somebody had peed on his shoe, actually. He didn't say anything. He looked just like "Cut to the commercial." You know?
BOND: Let me tell you a story I heard about you. This is out of context here. You know Werner Sollors?
BARAKA: Of course.
BOND: And Werner Sollors was going to be a James Joyce scholar. You know, he was studying James Joyce. That was what he was going to do. And he came to the United States and got one of these trip tickets that allowed him to go many miles on the bus. And he lands in Watts as the riot breaks out. And he's befriended a black woman who lives in Watts and she rescues him from the bus station, takes him to her home. They can't leave. He's there with her parents, and so on. And they turn on the TV and they're having a panel discussion about the Watts riot. And there's several people on the panel. And this guy says, "Oh, this is terrible. This is awful. This is terrible destruction. Burning, looting, terrible." Another guy says, "Oh, this is awful." And they come to you and you say, "This is the greatest thing I've ever seen." And the announcer says, "Well, we'll pause a moment for a commercial," and they go away. And when they come back, you're gone.
BARAKA: You're gone.
BOND: And Solars told me that from that moment on he dropped James Joyce, and he decided to study you. I don't know why I thought of that just now --
BARAKA: Well, because that kind of -- my reaction was coming from way back, from a whole other thing. It didn't have anything to do with America the Grand, so much as America the Oppressor, you know, because -- I'll tell you another story related to that. When Dutchman -- long, long leader -- when Dutchman was produced, and the opening night -- I went to the corner after. There were a lot of newspapers in New York then. And I went to the corner of this joint that stayed open all night and I got all these papers. This is in the Village. I got about five or six papers. And each newspaper would say, you know, in variations about "This man is crazy." "This man hates white people." "This man uses bad language." "This man -- " And my take on all that was finally, well, they want to make me famous, I see. They want to make me famous. That's what it is. No matter how much they hated the work they said --
But, you know, some didn't. But then, in some kind of not really miraculous, but surprising, fashion to me, there came down at my head this fierce understanding of responsibility. I never had that before. I was like a wild, young Bohemian. You know, I would do whatever was happening. But then suddenly this feeling, "Oh, now you're gonna make me famous? I see. Now, you're going to pay for that." Then I'm going to say everything I ever thought, everything I ever heard, everything my Momma, my grandmother, my father, my grandfather, all those people in the ghetto. Now is my turn to run it. See? And I felt that very clear. I mean, that was not a vague thing. That came into my head clear as a bell. You understand? "Now I'm going to get you." And so that feeling there, that story, I can see that because I really, genuinely felt that. You know?
I felt that like if you're going to kick our behind all these years, you know, and you say, "What should we say? Should we send you another letter saying that we don't like it?" -- that whatever had happened, the people did it because they were forced to it by the conditions and the context. And so be it, and right on. That's what I was thinking. And so that's when I began to think. Now, obviously, you try to provide, as you get older and can see some, you know, more productive direction, you know, because, finally, if you're burning down your own joint, you know, that's got some kind of negative --
BOND: Right. Right.
BARAKA: -- feedback.
BARAKA: When Dr. King got murdered, I was out there in the street telling people, "Don't burn down your own joint, you know, because we did that before." You know, in '67 we burned down, you know -- and I was in the middle of-- out there in the middle of the street now telling people, "Don't burn down this part of town. This is where you live." You know? And they started to go downtown, you know, down the middle of the city. And I knew it was going to happen then. I was telling them then, "When you go down there, you know that them folks are waiting for us with their guns." Now you know that.
BOND: Yes. They'll protect that --
BARAKA: Yeah. So we went downtown, but we didn't -- you know, we went down there to put a presence. But by that time I had come to the understanding that, "No, I do not want them to try to run amok down here, because they will get killed". And I had a responsibility now for that. And so I'm going to tell you, "Do not do that. Stop. We can demonstrate, but do not run amok down here cause they will kill you."
BOND: Let me take you back to Howard.
BARAKA: Yeah. Sure.
BOND: Although you were leading into something I want to come back to, too, but back at Howard. So you're meeting these people. You're -- Sterling Brown is exposing you to part of your history you hadn't acknowledged before, hadn't thought of before. And how does all this affect you? What does it make you into?
BARAKA: A writer. It began to -- I began to write then and read. I didn't really like the stuff I was writing. I mean I didn't really know what I was doing, but I was writing and I was reading. And I was reading weird people now, even in the Howard University context. But --
BOND: Like whom?
BARAKA: Well, I'd be reading, like, Gertrude Stein, you know, or more Eliot or, you know -- I was reading things that I -- and the people that I read in that One Hundred Modern Poems, I was beginning to read who, for instance, was Apollinaire, who was, excuse me, a Baudelaire. I read Flowers in Evil, for instance. And walked around, you know, identifying with Baudelaire, in this all-black school --
BOND: And did anybody censor you in any way and say, "Gee, you know, that's white stuff"?
BARAKA: No. No. They told me "Don't eat watermelon on the campus -- "
BOND: "You need to be reading Langston Hughes -- "
BARAKA: No, they didn't. But then I got fixed on Garcia Lorca, who I had got through Langston Hughes. Because I was reading Langston, obviously. And it was Langston Hughes who translated Garcia Lorca for me. And I started reading Garcia Lorca. I would sit up in the dormitory at night with some yellow glasses on, for some reason, reading Garcia Lorca, and trying to read it in Spanish. That came from Langston, see, because Langston's poetry, you know, I took for granted. I knew Langston, I thought. I didn't have to search Langston. Langston was my man. That was a voice that I took for granted. But what Langston led me to was not only to Garcia Lorca, but later on to Jacques Roumain. Great -- these great -- still, for me, great, great writers. Great poets, you know. And so Garcia Lorca was the first influence I can say, really, as influence, you know what I mean, where you are trying to be a poet and, like, directly relating to a writer. It was Federico Garcia Lorca.
BOND: Now to what degree would you begin thinking of yourself as a writer, are you saying, "I'm going to write like this person"?
BOND: Or -- then what -- when you say "influenced" -- ?
BARAKA: Influenced in the sense that you love what he has done, and that's the feelings that you feel you were trying to get that feeling, that kind of lyricism in Lorca, for instance, that use of the colors, you know. The kind of musical, you known, porosity , the total sound --
BOND: And you want your readers to come away with the same feeling?
BOND: But it doesn't have to be communicated in the same way or structured in the same way?
BARAKA: No, but that kind of -- it certainly was influence that I thought that was -- I thought that was what beautiful meant, you know.
BOND: Now then, were you thinking then that poetry had to be beautiful? Couldn't it be hard? Couldn't it be a slap in the face?
BARAKA: Well, I always thought it could be funny. But I thought it could be beautiful. I thought what my idea of beautiful was.
BOND: Did you think then it could be harsh?
BARAKA: I think so. Not as much as I later found out. But I think after I started reading the -- well, I don't know if I felt like that, but I know that modern poems made me understand, you know, poems like -- about [Bertolt] Brecht and [Vladimir] Mayakovsky and people like that. I could see a kind of a harshness. But then I come out of a reading of things -- harsh language or harsh events --
BOND: Hard-hitting in a way that romantic poems aren't?
BOND: I mean, they just aren't.
BARAKA: I guess I developed that because I was going to say when I would read Frank Yerby or Richard -- or -- yeah, Richard Wright, when I was twelve years old, you know, there were things in that writing that might strike you with that kind of impact.
BARAKA: But then the poetry was from a different model. Because I was writing the Rubaiyat, which is calm and cool and, you know, romantic, if you will. So I guess it was not until later when I began to see things like, you know, Eliot and cummings, that the idea of a -- "this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper." You know, the Eliot thing. Then I could begin to see the whole use of those kind of forceful images, you know. And then it was very weird because in those days that kind of sweet, sort of hopelessness that you get from that kind of, you know, nihilistic kind of images, you know, "All over the world is, you know, nobody understands the intellectual. Nobody understands you." That was not the same as with the poetry that later came out of me that was supposed to be hard-hitting but still made me laugh. It's funny. I mean, because the more harsh that I would get, the funnier it would be to me in terms of my own feelings about it. You know what I'm saying? Whereas, the poetry that was supposed to be harsh in terms of imagery, from Eliot and Pound and people like that, would always leave me feeling in this kind of nihilistic world-weary kind of, you know --
BOND: I was amazed last night when you were talking, when people would laugh and I would laugh because what you said was funny. But I don't think it was, the laughter was because it was funny. I think it was because they hadn't heard that --
BOND: -- before, and it's an easy impulse to laugh.
BOND: So it's a combination of it being funny and being, "Whoa! I didn't think of that before."
BOND: So you leave Howard before graduation and join the Air Force. Why'd you do that?
BARAKA: Because I had gotten kicked out of Howard for being uninterested. And that was what I was supposed to do. And so I was actually embarrassed to go back home say, "Oh, here's your boy. You know, he's come back home. He just got kicked out of college -- because he won't study, he's in there reading poetry and reading stuff and writing stuff, you know. But he won't study, you know, the stuff you want him to study." So I joined the Air Force, which was a very, very stupid move. But the other hand, the dialectic of that that is very funny because, like I said, I became the night librarian down in Puerto Rico, which gave me the opportunity to order books from all over the world, order records from all over the world, and so complete my education, so to speak.
BOND: And this little group -- I'm just amazed at the group you described that studied at night with you.
BOND: Blacks, whites, a wide variety of Puerto Ricans.
BARAKA: And Puerto Ricans and Latinos. Yeah. Even a Chicano. Right.
BARAKA: How did they get together?
BOND: Yes, and are you in touch with any of them now?
BARAKA: Well, the one that I came close to was the painter, William White, who died maybe ten, fifteen, twenty years ago. Occasionally I hear from one or the other of them. But you see, the thing about the service, that's such a forced kind of relationship, you know, that a lot of times it wouldn't exist otherwise.But these were people who had some affinity, first, through the music, you know, and from the fact that we obviously were intellectuals and gravitated to each other in the context of that, you know. I mean, I got kicked out of the service too. I mean, I had a perfect record. First I got kicked out of college, and then I got kicked out of the service.
But these were people who loved the music or who wanted to be artists, you know what I mean, or who just were very curious homeboy-types. We had this Mexican guy in there who was absolutely white. Blonde hair, white-looking guy. You wouldn't -- He looked like a movie star, you know that type, except when he opened his mouth. Or if he opened his hand, he had a -- the cross between his finger that -- you know, the pache -- What is it? Pacheco?
BARAKA: Pachuco thing.
BOND: I think.
BARAKA: And so one time somebody said something about, you know, "these Spics" and he said, "So what'd you say, brother?" -- because he had those slow Texas drawl -- "What'd you say, brother?" He cut this guy from his eye to his [chin]. So he used to be in there too. I mean, his name was Grego. I mean, he used to be sitting there, we'd be learning about -- so I sometimes wondered about Grego. I said what -- somebody that violent yet, who looked like Brad Pitt -- a Brad Pitt, Mexicano-looking dude. Where is he today? What is he doing? What was -- what became of his life? A guy who sat with us through our reasoning from Bach to Mozart, you know what I mean, to Beethoven to -- what was -- what did -- what happened to his life? I mean, what was he studying actually?
BOND: So far as you know, did any of them become artists of any kind?
BARAKA: Yeah. One Phil Perkins was a photographer. There were two photographers in the group. Two photographers -- yeah, one was a writer/painter, a guy who used to call himself "Udolfus T. Celublah." He had been in the service twelve years when I met him and he had three stripes. But, see, a lot of people in the service when you get in there are there, like, you know, it's a steady job. As they used to say, "Three hots and a flop." You know, it was a gig. You know what I mean. They could be there.
So he had been there twelve years because he really had nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do. You know, he educated himself to the extent that he did, there. And our little salon in the library -- which I was the librarian, so I was in charge -- so this was post-graduate study for us, you know. But I -- a brother named "Carl Lombard" who gave me his complete works that I have to publish one day, you know. He was a painter. You know, William White who went to New York. I kept telling White, "Then don't go to Howard. Whatever you do, don't go to Howard." He immediately went to Howard and then went to New York. We met again down on the Lower East Side. He died unfortunately much too early. But he was a painter. As a matter of fact, one day William White's paintings will emerge. I mean, I know that, that one day people will understand that this guy was a formidable kind of painter.
BOND: Now you, at one time, are torn between being a painter and being a writer, as I understand?
BARAKA: Right. That's right.
BOND: So, I mean, what tipped the balance?
BOND: And what attracts you to painting?
BARAKA: Well, because, like I said, my mother -- I drew all the time, you know. I still paint, you know. I've actually had shows. I had a show in L.A., I had a show in San Francisco. I was in the Two-Man Show at Jersey City at the University. I was in a couple as a teenager. I'd had shows. And there's another show planned for -- soon. But anyway, I've drawn all my life. And I'll tell you, my mom had sent me to, you know, art --
BOND: Yeah. What kind of painter are you?
BARAKA: I use -- what can I say? I use markers, chalk -- colored chalk -- oil crayons --
BOND: Realistic -- ?
BARAKA: -- pencil -- pen
BARAKA: Yeah. I can draw, actually, but I don't like to all the time draw, like straight out, you know. So I've been influenced most by the, expressionist style, whether it's black expressionist style of people like Jake [Jacob] Lawrence and Vincent Smith, or the German expressionist style of people like [Max] Beckman, and [Karl] Schmidt-Rottluff. So it's -- I like to use color, you know, and to use color to make statements about the world that are not necessarily direct. But I do that. I have -- you know, my wife is getting ready to put me out into the garage where we're getting it redone. So now I'm -- she wants more space in the house, so I guess I will have a little studio out in my garage where I can write and paint without the incessant interruption that we have now. Our house is -- you know, we've been in Newark so long, you know -- she was raised in Newark. She was born in North Carolina. I, of course, was born and raised in Newark. People know us since we were tots, you know. And like as not, you might see one of them any day.